I heard John Reznikoff’s booming voice, reminiscent of a seasoned announcer’s on Antiques Roadshow, before I saw him. He came bounding from the office kitchen in Nike sneakers, looking much younger and livelier than how I’d expected the “father of modern hair collecting,” as he put it, to appear. Forty-six years old, Reznikoff still had hair in all the right places — a respectable amount on the eyebrows, more than average on the arms, and none coming out of his ears; that is, except for the fact he was completely bald.
“I just shaved this yesterday,” was one of the first things he said, and throughout our conversation, he continued to drop subtle hints that he was not, in fact, going bald. I learned he occasionally treats himself to $60 haircuts at Peter Coppola Salon and that his favorite shampoo is a tossup between Paul Mitchell Tea Tree and Nexxus Sleektress (their website seems to suggest the target user is seventeen and looking forward to the prom).
You see, for someone who owns a $10 million collection of hair from historical figures — the largest in existence, according to Guinness World Records — it’s important to stop any rumors suggesting he has a hair loss problem.
Selling locks of hair to other dealers of collectible memorabilia nets him enough to pay the salaries of his ten employees at University Archives in Westport, Connecticut. He already has strands from some of the greatest names in history: Washington, JFK, Napoleon, Einstein, Beethoven, Chopin, and about 120 others. Each year, he lets himself buy three or four additional locks from auction houses, a global network of “pickers” (small-time dealers), and the occasional grandmother who just cleaned out her attic.
Reznikoff energetically advertises his $10 million plus annual business in stamps, autographs, and Americana, but when it comes to his beloved hair collection, he keeps a low profile — he doesn’t advertise, sell to the public, or buy clippings of living people.
With the rise of eBay and celebrity mania, what was once a gentleman’s hobby among a few dozen enthusiasts has turned into a multi-million-dollar industry, complete with professional dealers and professional quacks. Thousands of small-time collectors now jostle alongside Sotheby’s and Christie’s for snippets of Marilyn Monroe’s golden curls (rare), Katherine Hepburn’s brunette tresses (rarer), and Elvis’s black locks (rarest). In October, one collector paid $119,500 — edging out Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez — for the only known tuft of hair from revolutionary hero Che Guevera. In February, a hairstylist offered to sell Britney Spears’s shaved hair for $1 million. Beyond the initial yuck factor, hair collecting has turned into a tabloid exercise, as people use DNA tests to dig up dirt on celebrities past and present. Did Lincoln have syphilis? Was Beethoven hooked on prostitutes? Is Britney still doing coke?
As the de facto spokesman for the world’s hair collectors, Reznikoff remains unfazed amidst the swirls of controversy and the perversion of an innocent hobby. He continues, much as he has for the past twenty years, tracking down the rare pieces, poring over historical documents for provenance, and praying that he doesn’t go bald anytime soon.
Hidden in the back corner of a renovated thread mill, concealed on all sides by neatly trimmed lawns and clapboard houses, University Archives couldn’t have found a more nondescript home. The view used to be slightly more interesting when the Saugatuck River flowed behind the office, but the town rerouted it two blocks away to make room for more houses.
Before he took me into the back, Reznikoff wanted to show off some of his creative handiwork. Propped against one wall was a large gold frame set against a scarlet red background. It contained three individual era portraits of Napoleon, the Duke of Wellington, and Wellington’s horse, mounted above their respective hair. In another frame, a fading photo of Elvis after getting his famous G.I. haircut (“hair today, gone tomorrow”) with the obligatory hunk of hair were glued onto blue suede. A third frame held yet another era portrait, this one of Charles I (before he lost his head), posed with a few strands of hair taken from his tomb (after he lost his head). I wished the hair wasn’t behind glass so I could give it a good sniff.
“Nobody likes just a clump of hair, which is why you need to illustrate the history,” Reznikoff explained as we entered the heart of University Archives — the aforementioned storage closet.
It was easy to see why Reznikoff rarely entertained walk-in guests, as the showroom looked (and smelled) more like Grandma’s cluttered attic than the storage facility of a multimillion-dollar auction house. But Reznikoff was in his element. “Look at this. Hemingway’s typewriter,” he said matter-of-factly. “That? Cosmonaut spacesuit.” Feeling solemn, as if I were backstage at the Smithsonian, I pointed at a blue dress, hoping it had belonged to Jackie Kennedy or Princess Diana. “Oh, yep, you found the Lewinsky dress,” Reznikoff said proudly. I was glad I hadn’t tried to touch it.
Our pace sped up even more — so much to see and so little time — once he opened the file cabinets where the hair was kept. Each person received his own folder, usually overflowing with historical documents such as yellowed news clippings and torn pages from diaries that prove the hair’s authenticity, as well as an envelope containing the actual hair. Naturally, nothing was alphabetized.
“This, Jack Ruby’s. And here’s John Dillinger’s. Oh! I forgot, I just got Eva Braun’s,” he said, as if their hair were novelty stamps you could simply buy at the post office.
Reznikoff had just finished recounting his failed attempt to buy John Wilkes Booth’s hair fifteen years ago. He offered $20,000, because the hair was well documented — Union soldiers had clipped it as a morbid souvenir after shooting him in the Garrett barn. His offer was promptly dismissed with a laugh. He finally snagged the hair years later and only because the collector had died. “The whole experience was sour grapes,” Reznikoff said. “After that, I didn’t want to collect the bad guys.” I wanted to ask why sleeping with Hitler wasn’t bad enough, but as I was pondering this, he had already gone through Dickens, Geronimo, and Hamilton.
After seeing that I was sufficiently impressed, Reznikoff beckoned me over to a five-foot-tall safe in the back. The key was not in the lock this time. Inside were most of his autographs and historical documents, neatly organized in three-inch binders. He pulled out a gold case, the pièce de résistance of his collection. Inside was a clump of Lincoln’s hair, bearing a striking resemblance to a Brillo pad. He said, with an air of complete authority, that the hair was easily worth $500,000, and that if I looked closely, I could see dried brain matter. To me, it looked more like the egg bits you find stuck to the Brillo pad after you scrub the frying pan. He waved a thick leather book in front of me, stuffed with documentation that traced the hair’s journey from Peterson House to University Archives. One letter, its flowing script faint from age, was from a General James Grant Wilson, dated 1913:
I occasionally had the opportunity of adding some acceptable Lincoln items to Major Lambert’s large collection, but the greatest service of this character, in his judgment, was acquiring for him at a cost of $600 the large blood-stained lock of hair cut from the President’s head when the surgeon was examining the wound made by the assassin’s bullet. It was given to Dr. Taft, an army surgeon, among the first to reach the victim, and who was assisting the chief surgeon in charge. Taft’s son offered the precious relic to me and I secured it for the Major, who deemed it his most precious Lincoln treasure, for locks of his hair are more difficult to obtain than those of Washington.
Reznikoff also showed me some green yarn he kept in the safe. “This is just as valuable as Lincoln’s hair,” he said. “From my son’s blankie.” As we leave the showroom, I noticed a few bottles of wine, dusty and black. “I’m thinking about getting into wine,” he said casually. “I’ve always been a collector. I really believe that’s something genetic — you’re either a collector, or you’re not.”
In college, he became so obsessed with stamp collecting that he found himself going to stamp shows instead of his pre-law classes. He ended up making $20,000 a year trading with professional dealers. “That was a lot back then,” he explained. “If you got into a decent law firm, you might have started at $30,000.” So he dropped out in 1981, to the shock of his father, a professor of psychology, and founded a stamp business the same year — naming it “University Archives” as an ironic jab at his dropout status.
Twenty-six years later, Reznikoff trades in some of the most valuable memorabilia on the market: JFK’s convertible from the day of his assassination ($1,000,000), a piece of the moon ($100,000), a copy of the Declaration of Independence ($50,000). In short, he has become such a financial success he can buy bottles of wine from Edward VIII’s personal collection on a whim.
Before John Reznikoff, there was Mrs. Edwards Pierrepont, the wife of President Grant’s attorney general. She would surely have held the Guinness World Records title, if it had existed in 1860, for the largest hair collection. She collected at the height of the Victorian era, when, instead of asking for autographs from celebrities, people would ask for a lock of hair. “More so than an autograph, it was a sign of affection,” Harry Rubenstein, a curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, explained to me. Hair collecting became such a trend that in 1840, the U.S. patent office put out a box for donations towards a national archive. These donations, Rubenstein said, became the Smithsonian’s current collection — which comprises fourteen presidents and twenty-five notable Americans.
Hair collecting in the Victorian era carried more sentimental value than it does today, added William Yeingst, another curator at the Smithsonian. Civil War soldiers would wear a locket of their sweetheart’s hair. Mothers would save the hair of their daughters and incorporate it into pieces of jewelry. And middle-class families would construct elaborate wreaths of flowers, yarn, shells, and hair as home decorations and memorials.
Before the 19th century, hair was even more revered. Alexander Pope had to write an 894-line epic poem in 1712, The Rape of the Lock, to smooth over the ill will created when a friend of his snipped some hair from a young woman he fancied. This level of emotional attachment had its origins in the Catholic veneration of hair as a “first-class relic,” defined as the physical remains of a saint. St. Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine I, may have inadvertently become the first hair collector (aside from the ancient Scythians, who had a nasty scalping habit) when she allegedly salvaged the Virgin Mary’s hair from Jerusalem in 330 AD.
Towards the end of the Victorian Era, hair took a backseat to baseball cards, a more commercial pursuit fed by the brand-new notion of pop culture. Then, with the advent of radio, motion picture, and television, the modern celebrity emerged, and collecting autographs became a national preoccupation. Hair was simply too unwieldy, too impractical, and, frankly, too creepy to hand out to fans.
It was in the 1970s, when hair collecting was at its lowest point of popularity and Reznikoff was still a kid collecting comic books and autographs, that Robert L. White, a cleaning-supplies salesman with a curious fetish for collecting shrunken heads, came to the rescue. He bought Pierrepont’s collection and gave it some Hollywood allure by adding clippings from household names like Katherine Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe. Twenty years ago, Reznikoff, whose own business had already become a financial success, bought White’s entire collection of 60 figures for just under $100,000.
In the last decade, hair collecting has come back in vogue. The demand has been “insatiable,” said Brian Marren, vice president of acquisitions for Mastro Auctions, which sells approximately $100,000 in hair per year. In 2002, Marren’s company sold a jar of Elvis’s hair, saved by his barber, for $115,000. “It’s a celebrity-driven culture, so almost anything attached to a celebrity is sellable,” Marren said. “EBay has hair for sale every week.”
Louis Mushro is the most prolific of these eBay dealers, selling roughly two thousands lots per year from his hair collection of 36 figures, most of which he obtained at some point from Reznikoff. “There’s a great interest in hair because of the history, like the Civil War,” he said, referring to his Abe Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, and William Quantrill hairs. “Its beauty is like the mane of a horse, something that lasts forever.” Before ending the interview, Mushro urged me to check out a strand of John Wayne’s hair on his eBay page. “I have the best feedback in the world,” he said, paused, and quickly added, “Besides John’s, of course.”
But as the Elvis sale suggests, today’s top dollars don’t go towards Civil War fogies. In February, when Britney Spears had a meltdown and shaved her head, her hairdresser Esther Tognozzi was there to help. In an online auction, she wrote, “I am selling the hair as well as the 3/4 full can of Redbull she was drinking and her blue Bic Lighter … We are offering it for sale here at what we feel is a realistic price.” The realistic price? $1 million. (Reznikoff appraised it at $3,500.)
On the phone, Esther sounded as smooth as her online persona, as she lamented about how dozens of other entrepreneurs have been selling fake Britney hair to capitalize on her idea. One collector offered her a six-figure sum, which she declined. “We just wanted to get enough money out of it so we can help the orphans in Armenia and the people who have cancer,” she explained in absolute seriousness. When I asked her why someone would pay six figures for Britney’s hair, she made perhaps her first sane observation, “I understand this obsession with celebrities, but we’ve gone beyond obsession. I don’t even know what to call it, it’s just sick.”
Of course, like a true Hollywood veteran, she had one more thing to add. “So, like, can I get paid for this interview?”
When I returned to University Archives a week later (Reznikoff had gone to a charity boot camp in the meantime, which explained the shaved head), Lisa told me to head straight into his office. He was wrapping up a phone conversation with someone who wanted to sell him the English novelist William Thackeray’s hair. “Oh, there’s a lock of hair in the front of the book?” he said into a wireless headset, legs propped on the desk. Pause. “Well, it probably wouldn’t be for me without any direct attribution.” Slight pause. “And I already have the hair.”
After the call, he explained, “Any relic requires a leap of faith, but the question is, is it a crack in the sidewalk or the Grand Canyon? And that was the Grand Canyon.”
Soon after opening his stamp business in 1981, Reznikoff branched into a more academic domain: historical documents, a natural direction since he loved history. “As a kid, I would always know little facts like who was the shortest president (Madison) or the fattest one (Taft),” he said. Perhaps more than anything, his expertise as a historical document expert — he frequently serves as a top witness for the Justice Department on appraisal and fraud cases — sets him apart from the recent crop of small-time hair collectors. “John is the most diligent, most research-oriented type of person you will meet,” said Mushro, the eBay dealer. “He’s not going to buy something unless he knows it’s absolutely real.”
The dealers I spoke to all talked extensively about Reznikoff’s experience, and in particular, his knowledge of history. “He’s certainly smarter and has a lot more energy than most other people,” said Bob Eaton, owner of the auction house R&R Enterprises. “Everybody loves John.”
Well, not exactly everyone. Reznikoff, though he collects mainly for personal enjoyment, hasn’t escaped controversy. In 2005, he bought some of Neil Armstrong’s hair from his former barber for $3,000. Armstrong was furious and threatened to sue. Reznikoff settled the dispute by offering $3,000 to charity. “I don’t do living celebrities anymore,” he said. “That has the connotations of a stalker running around with scissors, and that’s not me.”
Hair collecting poses bigger problems. Thomas Serafin runs International Crusade for Holy Relics, an organization that protests hair being sold on eBay, mostly because of unscrupulous dealers selling fake relics, but also because hair from American Indians and Moloka’i Hawaiians are available. “They shouldn’t be collected as history’s baseball cards,” he said. Likewise, many families of contemporary celebrities oppose a part of their loved one being sold for profit. It’s only a matter of time before this pursuit gets dragged into court. A legal squabble already ensued in 2003 over Ted Williams’s head.
The most fundamental criticism strikes at the core of hair collecting — a sense that it is a violation of a basic right to privacy. History buffs have used DNA testing on hair from collectors to focus on the dark side of history’s beloved figures. We’ve learned, for instance, that Jefferson had sex with one of his slaves, and that Beethoven, though he didn’t contract syphilis, was somehow poisoned by lead.
One collector, Bob Eaton, has already sworn off hair collecting, fearing that it may hurt the rest of his auction business. “It’s basically a credibility issue,” he said. For now, Reznikoff treads a fine line. “I try to be generous with people doing scientific work, but I don’t want to get involved with the wackos,” he said. Case in point — he donated hair to the Napoleonic Society so researchers there could test if Napoleon was poisoned by strychnine (he was not), but declined to provide hair to someone claiming to be Charles Lindberg’s long-lost baby.
In many ways, hair collecting, once a sign of intimacy, has turned into an emblem of sensationalism and commercialism. Even Reznikoff has had to face the facts — and the financial reality. In September, he sold a few strands of George Washington’s hair to a baseball card company, which set off a media frenzy when the company announced the “Find the Hair” contest. The same month, he sold a wisp of Beethoven’s hair to a company that incorporated it into a synthetic diamond and listed it for $1 million on eBay.
Yet in other ways, hair collecting satisfies a basic human instinct to seek and cherish social connections. Hair is a synecdoche for the self, not to mention a tangible asset that can outlast personal expiration dates. A century after the hobby’s peak, mothers continue to save hair from their newborns as sacred mementos. “Hair is something we celebrate and identify with,” Reznikoff said. “We’re a society of hero-worshippers. An autograph is a great thing to have, but what brings you closer to a person than a piece of their actual being?”
Still, criticism won’t subside anytime soon for Reznikoff and his cohorts, if not for anything else than the same reason why you wouldn’t want to find Farrah Fawcett’s hair in your soup, no matter how many young girls have swooned over her feathery curls. Herein lies the conundrum — that though we pay people to style it, though it’s painless to cut off, and though there’s an almost infinite supply of it (as long as you take your vitamins), when it comes to collecting it, well, that’s just icky. Reznikoff, however, doesn’t see any moral or social ambiguity. “Anybody who’s a celebrity has signed up for this — that people are going to buy their autograph and their hair if they can get it. But I wouldn’t exploit the hair to see if someone has an incurable disease. That’s not ethical.”
Reznikoff preferred not to get too philosophical, because after all, it’s just hair. “If I wasn’t having fun doing this, I wouldn’t do it,” he said. And it looks like he won’t stop collecting anytime soon. “I can’t let the second-place guy catch up. Not that I’m counting,” he said with a grin.
His sheer enthusiasm and good-guy demeanor swayed me. After all, I rationalized, isn’t a strand of hair just a more exclusive autograph? Both are expendable and ephemeral. Plus, it couldn’t be as bad as owning Evander Holyfield’s chewed ear or a couple of shrunken heads from the Jivaro Clan. Caught up in the moment, I asked Reznikoff about buying a strand of Einstein’s hair. Turned out his last sale was $10,000 for a single hair. Never mind.
So I logged onto Craigslist hoping to find a cheaper deal. Although I couldn’t find anything on hair, I did come upon the following posting, which offers hope for anyone looking for a head start in becoming the next John Reznikoff (of nail clippings):
I work at a very prestigious nail salon in new york, with an a-list clientel (sic). I have a collection of nail clippings from various clients such as Cameron Diaz, Gweyn Stephani (sic), Beyonce and Scarlett Johansen (sic). My son who is in 7th grade is in desperate need of a Math tutor. I live in Manhattan and I would be willing to meet at a mutual location with my son. I will be willing to trade my collection for four one hour sessions. Serious inquiries only please. Thank you.